Christian author's book sparks charges of heresy
Rob Bell is under fire for his latest book before it even hits the shelves.
March 1st, 2011
06:00 AM ET

Christian author's book sparks charges of heresy

By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Rob Bell, a pastor and author who has achieved rock star status in the Christian world, is preaching a false gospel, his critics say. And some of those critics are Christian rock stars in their own right.

The pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Bell has authored a book called Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, which ignited a firestorm of controversy over the weekend, weeks before it arrives in bookstores.

On Saturday, in a blog post on the popular Christian website The Gospel Coalition, Justin Taylor blasted Bell's new book, out March 29, for teaching "false doctrine":

I’m glad that Rob Bell has the integrity to be lay [sic] his cards on the table about universalism. It seems that this is not just optimism about the fate of those who haven’t heard the Good News, but (as it seems from below) full-blown hell-is-empty-everyone-gets-saved universalism.

Universalism, in its broadest terms, preaches that everyone goes to heaven and that there is no hell. Critics say it represents a break from traditional Christianity, which they say holds that heaven and hell are very real places. In most Christian circles, universalism is a dirty word.

Taylor's post was quickly tweeted by several prominent pastors, including John Piper and Mark Driscoll, connected to the Gospel Coalition, a coalition of theologically conservative evangelical churches, and a full-blown theological controversy was on. By Monday, Taylor's response post had racked up a quarter million hits.

Other bloggers, meanwhile, are calling Bell an outright heretic.

Bell is not the first prominent Christian pastor to be recently accused of wading into theologically troubled waters. Bishop Carlton Pearson, once a mentee of famed Pentecostal televangelist Oral Roberts, has been run out of two churches and branded a heretic for preaching what he says is a gospel of inclusion with broad universalist themes.

Last year, Brian McLaren - a popular Christian author and a former pastor - was accused of breaking with Christian orthodoxy and delving headlong into universalism in his book A New Kind of Christianity.

But it's rare that theological arguments become top ten trending topics on Twitter, as Rob Bell did on Saturday.

“To be honest, it was a pretty rough weekend,” Taylor said in a phone interview. The 34-year-old heads the editorial content for Crossway, a Christian publishing company in Wheaton, Illinois.  Taylor he says his blog expresses his personal opinion not the opinion of the coalition.

"We’re talking about the big things here, things that have been historically defined as orthodox, " he said. "I have a high degree of confidence in what God is saying and what we can understand."

Though many things that separate Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox Christians, “this isn’t one of them," Taylor said. "We’ve historically agreed on many things, the person of Christ, heaven and hell. This isn’t a peripheral academic debate. What Rob Bell is talking about gets to the heart of Christianity.”

Taylor has not read Bell's forthcoming book in its entirety. His blog post was in response to the description released by Bell publisher HarperOne and a promotional video that features Bell.

"Rob Bell hasn’t sinned against me personally,” Taylor said, which is why he did not go to Bell before making his comments public. Instead, Taylor said, Bell's book represents a clear example of false teaching.

In the promotional video Bell refers to the nonviolent Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi, a Hindu, and asks, "Gandhi's in hell? He is?"

"And someone knows this for sure?" Bell continues. "Will billions and billions of people burn forever in hell? And if that's the case how do you become one of the few? "

The video follows a trend in Bell's career as a pastor: he has long asked tough theological questions and challenged traditional answers. The short promotional video raises lots of questions without offering definitive answers.

"What we believe about heaven and hell is incredibly important because it exposes what we believe about who God is and what God is like," Bell says in it. " The good news is that love wins."

Those lines raised eyebrows for Taylor and others. "It is not preaching the gospel as found in the New Testament," Taylor said. "The New Testament is pretty clear if someone preaches a false gospel… that we are to reject that and have nothing to do with them."

For all his hipster leanings - including black rimmed glasses - Bell has a traditional pedigree. He went to Wheaton College, the Harvard of Christian schools, and later graduated from Fuller Theological Seminary with a Master of Divinity.

But the Mars Hill Bible Church, which Bell founded, is not attached to any denomination. Were it attached to one - the Presbyterian or Catholic church, say - his book and video could raise eyebrows in the hierarchy and might lead to a church trial that could result in Bell's expulsion.

"A larger denomination would take his credentials and excommunicate him like they did to me,” Bishop Pearson told CNN.

By Sunday evening, Pearson was getting sent articles about the Bell flap. He said it reminded him of his days as a charismatic leader of a big church in the largest Pentecostal denomination. His questioning of hell from the pulpit led to his ouster.

"What happened to me is happening to Rob Bell," Pearson said. "If you denounce hell, it's like you are denouncing God. You’re going to be called a heretic."

“I thought my people loved me and would walk through the valley of the shadow of death with me, but they didn’t,” Pearson said.

Bell's church did not respond to requests for an interview. His Twitter feed has been silent since he posted about writing a piece for CNN's Belief Blog a few weeks ago. His publicist at HarperOne said he would not be doing publicity until his book hits shelves.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Belief • Christianity • Leaders • Michigan • United States

soundoff (2,200 Responses)
  1. D

    God our Father created Heaven and Earth, so He gets to make the rules. Sorry. The Bible is very clear that the ONLY way to the Father is through acceptance of His Son Jesus, as Lord and Savior. Ghandi did alot of good things, but rejected Jesus as his savior.

    March 1, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
  2. Scott L

    Jay, it's interesting that the Jesus you refer to said that on the last day, MANY will plead with him that they preached in his name, did miracles...and He will say, "Depart from Me. I never knew you." Now which Jesus are you referring to? "But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. 4For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed..."-II Corinthians 11:3,4

    March 1, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
  3. iveeno

    You cannot mix spirituality and science and you should not try. Those who are simple and limited in their minds are those who demand others to describe both science and spirituality using a single language. It is they who are limited, not the believer, as believers understand both science and spirituality. Only following their full understanding of both can they make a decision on both. Science based people like atheists can understaqnd ONLY science, so they are not capable of making an informed decision on spirituality, thinking it foolishness because they cannot grasp the concept. To them it, "doesn't make sense," the cry of the confused.

    The "prove God" argument is specious and biased in favor of Science. It asks spiritualists to use the language of science, not spirituality, to describe the spirit. Can science be described using the language of a spiritual person? No. why? Because the two are diametrically opposed ideas, both of which use different human capacities to explain themselves.

    It is as though you suddenly perceived things in a fourth dimension. Your vocabulary, being grown in three dimensions, would be insufficient and incapable of describing the fourth. This is where the 'scientists' are trapped.

    March 1, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
  4. crucified

    If Jesus wanted us to believe everyone goes to heaven and there is not Hell. He would of said "There is no Hell, so Party up, Everyone is going with me to Heaven"Matthew 7:13-14

    March 1, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
  5. Paul

    The most important aspect of God’s nature is that He is a God of Legality, but not Legalism. Everything God says legally binds Him to perform.

    When Adam and Eve sinned, the stated penalty of death was legally required to be imposed. Because of sin, our soul died to God and physical death entered the world. But ultimately, death is separation from God and is experienced after physical death. That separation takes place in Hell.

    Legalism says the PERSON who sinned should pay the penalty (be separated from God) but because the mercy and love of God, He made a solution that fully satisfies the legal requirement of His word and at the same time created a way for humanity to once again have a personal relationship with him. This solution was Jesus dying on the cross, taking on the sins of humanity and instead of humanity. John 3:16.

    God does override any legal requirements of His words because of mercy and love. As such, if we do not accept His solution to the penalty of sin then we are still subject to that penalty. That however is not God’s desire. He wants all men to be saved. When we respond to the tug of God in our hearts, accept the work of Jesus and surrender our lives to God and the Lordship of Jesus then our soul in BORN AGAIN. We become alive unto God.

    Whether we spend eternity WITH God or APART from Him, is not determined by how good a life we live but rather THE STATE OF OUR SOUL; alive or dead unto God. This is also a legal position because the penalty of death has or has not been legally satisfied and is now void or still enforceable. Even though it breaks God’s heart and it is not his will that any person be separated from Him, He will not override His word because of mercy and love. He exalts His word above everything else.

    While we are alive we have the opportunity to respond to the love and mercy of God shown in the work of Jesus. Oh that we would take Him up on His invitation to experience ultimate life: to live in his presence.

    March 1, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
    • Paul

      Fourth paragraph should have been

      "God doe not override any leagal requirements.........."

      March 1, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
  6. Gezus

    Hell is a place of consequence when goodness and righteousness of heavenly law is shunned. Stating that it does not exist is to remove all consequence from ill actions. It's purpose is clear. As for this author, beware false teachers, as many will come prior to the revelation of truth.

    March 1, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
  7. 777Fan

    Ive noticed over the past several years that Universalism is running more & more rampant. Even the lead singer of a very prominant Christian Rock band is buying in to it. Beware of wolves in sheeps clothing people. God is a merciful God however he is a JUST God. We CANNOT get to heaven on our own merit.

    March 1, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
  8. toxictown

    Angels on the head of a pin...

    March 1, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
  9. Officefan01

    I would guarantee that the people who are so quick to criticize Rob have never stepped foot in his church or talked to him one on one. It's interesting that people can form an opinion of what he believes without reading his book, going to his church or actually talking to him. We Christians apparently have too much time on our hands. Instead of attacking one another, wouldn't it be better to spend our time and energy doing good things and helping those around us?

    March 1, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
    • Jonathan Martis

      I don't need to speak to him, his video clearly questions what the Bible speaks of that is wrong. Christians want others to not be led away by false teaching. Going out and telling people "you're going to heaven just act good"...that's not the Bible, that's man's view influenced by the devil.

      March 1, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
  10. OpenEyes4U

    People! Believe me when I say that today everyone wants to be religious and most people want to believe in God and go to heaven, but not all those who call themselves "Christians" are infact Christians. These people people like Rob Bell are what we call "Wolves in Sheep clothing" the Bible does not teach us to force Jesus Christ upon others or kick them in their knees so they bow down before our Lord. We only offer a better way of life. For example how to be a husband to your wife, a parent to your child, a brother to yo your sibling or helper to no matter who is around you. Before you start antagonizin Christians first find out if he even follows what "Christ" says to do. If he/she doesn't then they are doing their own will under a false name.

    March 1, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
  11. Jonathan Martis

    I am a Christian and am thankful God gave me the opportunity to be saved and forgiven of my sins. I am a sinner and I need forgiveness and it started with Adam and Eve deciding to dishonor God's commandment.

    For everyone who thinks they are "good", wake up, you aren't and I am not either, we are all condemned to hell because we are sinners but thankfully Jesus offers us forgiveness of sins and allows us to be a follower of him. People measure their "goodness" based on what society says, well if everyone is a sinner and not saved, what kind of behavior do you expect to be seen as good? Hollywood's perception of it? No, you must measure yourself to the person of Jesus and he was perfect, it's at that time you will see that we as people are filthy rags in God's sight and need a Savior. Whether you believe in heaven or hell doesn't matter, it exists and you deciding to not think about it changes nothing.

    I pray that more people accept Jesus into their lives and for all the people wanting to say "why can't we get along"...when one like Rob Bell preaches false doctrine, this is an offense to us as Christians because we know what the Bible really says and Universalism is false doctrine. Everybody wants to feel good about themselves and don't want people telling them they are sinners, well that's a reason his church is growing because he doesn't speak the truth and a lot of people may feel they can just keep on living their life without needing forgiveness because if there is no hell why would they need it? Read the Bible, many false teachers will come into the world and you need to base your belief on what the Bible says, not what a man says. If a pastor's message doesn't match what the Bible speaks of, he is a false teacher and you need to go somewhere else where sound Bible teaching is given.

    One last thing, Christians are the most hated in the world...more than Muslims, Hindu's, etc...the reason for this is because in the Bible Jesus said people would hate Christians because they hated him and this is validated by the many comments being posted here bashing Christians.

    God bless you all and I pray that you find the truth, which is Jesus.

    March 1, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
    • Richard

      You flatter yourself when you say 'Christians are the MOST hated'. You are engaging in that wonderful pursuit of martyrdom . . . if only its verbal form. So, who hates you so much, indeed, who even cares so much about you to expend that energy on you? Fewer and fewer people care what RELIGIONs of all kinds say. Stop the self-centered commentary. We care so little we can't hate you. Pity perhaps . . . but then that emotion requires so little energy.

      March 1, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
    • endure

      @Richard, I think you just proved him right.

      March 1, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
    • Jonathan Martis

      @Richard – Yes, because I need the attention...when was the last time you saw Muslim's being made fun of or joked at during movies, cartoons, in the media? Almost never. How many times have you seen Christianity being mocked? Very often even if you didn't see it yourself. Statues of Christ being blown up in movies, shows showing people going to the bathroom on a picture of Jesus, movies making fun of Christians (Bill Maher) but similar things related to Islam were stopped because death threats were given to those who wanted to attempt the mocking...you're being ignorant about the facts and it doesn't matter if you don't think it's true. Tell someone they need forgiveness of sins and they need to accept Jesus to go to heaven and watch the response. Christians are mocked and disliked because they tell others they need to change and need saving (what the Bible speaks)...nobody likes that but it doesn't change the fact that that's what they need. Your response validates my original post as well.

      March 1, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
    • Jonathan

      Do you not comprehend that Christiantiy is a man made myth? Are you that ignorant and immature? Is your IQ that low? Is your knowlege of Christianity that small? You have a very uninformed, childish, and primitive understanding of God and spirituality. You are the type of person we need to protect our children from.

      March 1, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
    • Jonathan

      Do you not understand that what you are stating in your posts are false teachings? Christianity is a false teaching that has nothing to do with the God or Creator of reality.

      March 1, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
    • Jonathan

      Ummm one other thing, there is NO such thing as the Devil......are you for real. You have to be a prankster on here. What century are you living in?

      March 1, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
    • WarhammerTwo

      There is no devil? And you know this because...? And please, don't misunderstand. I'm not saying there is a devil. What I am saying is that you don't know what happens after you die anymore than I do. And to claim anything to the contrary is just, well, dopey. No one's ever come back to tell us one way or another. So unless you have evidence to back up your claims, ya ain't got much of an argument.

      And on the flip side, Christians, Muslims and Jews have as much evidence as you do about the the afterlife. So they have no right to talk down to you either. And I am a Christian and, unfortunately, a research scientist. I struggle continually with the divinity of Jesus. I don't know if he was the son of God or if he was just a really amazing teacher. Either way< i agree with the philosophies attributed to him – not so much of the philosophies exspoused by many of his followers – and as such I consider myself a Christian.

      All I'm saying is let them believe what they want to believe and they should let you think what you want to think and that should be the end of it. i think we can all agree, however, that that point of our existance is to be good to one another and help one another. Y'know, seek justice, love mercy and all that jazz. We should all look to focus on what we agree with as good and pay less attention to that which would divide us.

      March 1, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
  12. Audrey

    Bell's quote is a reflection of his false idea of hell:

    "What we believe about heaven and hell is incredibly important because it exposes what we believe about who God likes," Bell says in it. " The good news is that love wins."

    Bell, like many Protestants, have a misunderstanding of hell as a place God sends people to punish them and a place that only people inside the church have a chance to escape from. Having a perspective like his, it's understandable why he rejects that idea.

    As an Eastern Orthodox Christian, hell is understood as a state in our hearts. If I don't love and forgive people and/or if I live enslaved to harmful desires, I am already in hell. Hell is the state of not being who God created me to be. Since there is free will, there is deifnitely hell. To deny hell is to deny that there is anything wrong with the state of our hearts and with the world.

    I am glad Christians are speaking out against Bell's teachings, and I hope also that many Christians will begin to explore a truly Orthodox understanding of hell. If they do, they will find it much harder to deny the reality of hell.

    March 1, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
    • WarhammerTwo

      I agree with you Audrey. There is a hell and it is a hell of our own making. Ever read CS Lewis' The Great Divorce? We just read it as part of our Adult Christian Education in our church. It brought forth a lot of great discussion about heaven and hell, both for and against the concepts presented in his writings. It's a very quick read. If you haven't already, check it out if you get the chance.

      March 1, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
  13. Hank

    who is in a position to call someone else a heretic? Who is the Authority??? Maybe the people calling him a heretic are in fact heretics. Who is in charge. Its a big joke.

    March 1, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
  14. Richard

    "Let the Bible interpret the Bible." says one poster. Its apparent to me that fundamentalist Christians worship the bible much like the Muslim worships the Koran. Both are 'people of the Book". It is interesting how this narrow approach essentially negates the notion of a 'personal relationship' with Jesus or God. How can you have a direct experience of th divine if it is mediated entirely through the labrynth of conflicting and esoteric pathways of these ancient texts? So, you think you are experiencing the Divine? You gotta check it for veracity in the myriad of verses . . . felt God in that sunrise? Watch out you may be worshiping a false idol, or engaging in some blaphemous heathen ritual, or flirting with a scientific interpretation of creation.
    Any way you cut it, the message is clear: if you believe, don't THINK it can only get you in trouble with the Book. "Let the Bible interpret the Bible." , got it?

    March 1, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
    • toxictown

      Seriously, an ontology based on threats & rewards meted out by an erratic (and conceivably mentally ill) celestial zookeeper is flawed from the get go. Humans will make up all kinds of stories and theories to explain all sorts of things. Throw it all on the pile – just listen.

      March 1, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
  15. Tyler

    Justin Taylor has not even read the whole book yet. How does he know Rob Bell's full opinion?

    "Taylor has not read Bell's forthcoming book in its entirety. His blog post was in response to the description released by Bell publisher HarperOne and a promotional video that features Bell."

    He is judging the whole book, and Rob Bell, by a description and a quick video. Something does not line up here. Could Justin Taylor be misusing this theology discussion to gain fame and in-turn more money? He is jumping the gun on Bell. Bell is acclaimed and famous in the modern Christian culture and Taylor sees that. Is he envious?

    I am not attacking Taylor at all, I am just proposing thought.

    March 1, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
  16. Nathan

    God bless Rob Bell. He actually gets it. So did George MacDonald. And so have many others. There are many ways to describe how people lead themselves to hell, but the God of Love does not condemn people to everlasting punishment. And God is love. That God tries to speak to us through scripture, through prayer, and through our lives with one another and our speaking to one another, and that God's persevering love never stops, never fails, and will ultimately outlast us all. For as long as we can, though, we will keep putting God into familiar concepts, shaped by our own persistent resistance to that love. Peace and grace to you, Rob Bell.

    March 1, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
    • Emmitt Langley

      The god of love doesn't, but what about the God of the Bible. He seems to give people the just punishment for blatantly ignoring his offer of forgiveness of sin.

      March 1, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
    • Jonathan Martis

      God wouldn't send anyone to hell? He doesn't...you send yourself because if you don't accept Jesus as your Savior and admit you're a sinner, you are rejecting God. Would a judge let a murderer go because he loves him? It doesn't matter, God is just and people who reject him are making that choice to not follow him. God wishes none would perish but he won't force you to follow him, it's something people need to realize.

      March 1, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
    • Elphaba

      @ Emmit Langley. Jesus says the only way into the Kingdom of God is through Him. Period. It makes no room for those who, through no fault of their own, will never have the opportunity to know Him. Is their punishment just?

      March 1, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
    • endure

      I wonder if those "familiar concepts" you are referring to are things like Heaven and Hell. Did you know that those concepts originated in the BIble? One cannot say he believes what the Bible says while denying the existence or population of Hell. That's akin to believing one can offend the federal government without experiencing consequences, like prison. But lets give Rob Bell the benefit of the doubt. Though his theology is quite ambiguous and fishy at times and his teaser video was quite provocative, his book has not come out yet. I hope for the sake of his followers that he is simply being provocative rather than heretical.

      March 1, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
  17. crucified

    Universialism is Heretical.

    March 1, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
    • Emmitt Langley

      Agreed, but do you think CNN would even acknowledge him if he wasn't heretical? If a pastor is doing his job, according to the Bible and staying out of trouble, he will NEVER been on CNN. Period.

      March 1, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
    • toxictown

      Heretical to christians...not to universalists. Although christianity is heretical to jews who are heretical to jews who are heretical to buddists who are heretical to hindus who are heretical to muslims. :-/

      March 1, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
    • Jonathan

      Christianity is heretical. We need to stop spreading the lies, myths, ignorance, and poison that is Christianity to our Children. We need to protect our future generations from this virus. Thank God Christianity is slowly dieing but not fast enough. We all need to wake up, grow up......and no I am not an athiest, just a former Christian and I do thank God for that.

      March 1, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
    • Jason Kichline

      Jesus was a heretic... The first sermon he preached almost got him killed, and his message quickly did. So can Rob Bell, a man standing up for the cause of love and getting "crucified" for it, be any more Christ-like? The truth is that you cannot understand God (because he's God and you're not). So "having all the answers" puts you in the same boat as the Pharisees that Jesus came against. Stop using church as a club or clique and open your eyes to the message of Jesus which is simply love.

      March 1, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
  18. Jamie

    Those whose entire theology is based on treats they get when they die are threatened. There was a rabbi who spoke about the temple once and how everything had changed with his coming. He was crucified by the religious bunch too. For the rest of us, we're still trying to bring the kingdom of god to earth and not using bits of scriptures out of context to back up our handed down

    March 1, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
  19. D. Clemens

    Perhaps I can recommend reading about Saint Faustina. It will help clarify the issue. I'm thinking most won't like what they read.

    March 1, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
  20. PK

    I have been blessed by Rob Bell's NOOMA DVD's very much. I'm not sure if I'll read the book referenced here, though. From the comments listed, I wonder if the book is somewhat a backlash to the error-filled teaching in much of the Christian world that comes from Athenagoras (A.D. 127-190) of Alexandria. He became a Christian but still maintained much of his beliefs that he learned from Platonic theory. So much more information at helltruthdotcom.

    March 1, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
    • Me

      LOL You cult members of all denominations are funny. Arguing over which part of your story book is true. Well I guess if it makes you feel better, go to it.

      March 1, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
    • You

      What amuses me is that most of the anti-christian rhetoric comes from one christian denomination to the others. You christians can't even keep your own house in order. Quit knocking on my door to try to get me involved in your disfunctional family.

      March 1, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.